From this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tzav:
A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. (Leviticus 6:6)
How do we understand this verse now that the Tabernacle no longer exists? Several well-known Hasidic commentaries have compared the eternal fire of the altar to the fire of worship that burns within our souls:
The same is true of the human soul: there needs to burn in it a fiery longing to worship the Creator, and this longing has to be renewed each day, as we read: “The priest shall burn wood upon it each morning, each morning.” Everyone who worships God may be called a priest, and this arousal of love in Israel’s hearts is the Service of the Heart, that which takes the place of sacrificial offerings.
(Sfat Emet, from “The Language of Truth,” p. 155, translation by Rabbi Arthur Green).
Bearing this teaching in mind, I am especially struck by the detailed description of the High Priest’s duties – and the importance that he constantly tend the fire to make sure it burns perpetually. Indeed, the Talmud points out that no fire may be kindled on Shabbat except for the fire of the altar (see JT Yoma 6:4). This is an enormously important insight, I think: although it is “eternal,” the fire cannot burn perpertually by itself.
Indeed, if you read the details of this week’s portion carefully, the picture that emerges is one of a High Priest, his beautiful vestements streaked with blood and ashes, as he labors to effect Israel’s sacrifices and clean up afterwards, all the while making sure that the fire never goes out. If, as the Sfat Emet suggests above, we are all High Priests now, it is up to us to keep the fire burning. Perhaps more than anything, this view strongly suggests that living a life of spiritual balance, of compassion, of devotion, takes work and discipline.
Or to put it another way, it is simply not possible to make a successful offering without getting one’s hands dirty…
I’m still wondering whether we can also compare the perpetual fire to the eternal light that was keep burning in our sanctuaries. It serves as a reminder, if we let it, of the fire that burns inside us.
Correction: eternal light that WE keep burning.